Reddit's science section has banned climate change-denying trolls

One of the site's largest subreddits, r/science, has had enough of angry, conspiracy-spouting posters who do nothing but ruin legitimate debate.

Reddit’s science section - r/science - is one of the site’s default sections (or “subreddits” in the site’s parlance), and is one of the main places on the internet where experts and lay people can come together and chat about science. Its moderators, like the rest of those in charge of subreddits, have to juggle the site community’s strong belief in free speech with the need to prevent arguments, trolling, or anything else that could derail genuine scientific debate.

That’s why they’ve taken the step to ban “climate change deniers” from the subreddit. One of the moderators, chemist Nathan Allen, has written a blog post to explain why the decision was made (I’ve picked out the key paragraphs):

While evolution and vaccines do have their detractors, no topic consistently evokes such rude, uninformed, and outspoken opinions as climate change. Instead of the reasoned and civil conversations that arise in most threads, when it came to climate change the comment sections became a battleground.

...

After some time interacting with the regular denier posters, it became clear that they could not or would not improve their demeanor. These problematic users were not the common “internet trolls” looking to have a little fun upsetting people. Such users are practically the norm on reddit. These people were true believers, blind to the fact that their arguments were hopelessly flawed, the result of cherry-picked data and conspiratorial thinking.

...

We discovered that the disruptive faction that bombarded climate change posts was actually substantially smaller than it had seemed. Just a small handful of people ran all of the most offensive accounts. What looked like a substantial group of objective skeptics to the outside observer was actually just a few bitter and biased posters with more opinions then [sic] evidence.

Negating the ability of this misguided group to post to the forum quickly resulted in a change in the culture within the comments. Where once there were personal insults and bitter accusations, there is now discussion of the relevant aspects of the research.

I used to work as a barman in a pub with a semi-famous regular who obsessively tried to argue that renewable energy was a scam and nuclear power was a better option, and who would pick drunken arguments with other regulars about it just for the sake of it. It was very weird, and it made uncomfortable, so we barred them. This is a bit like that.

If you want to see an example of a good discussion about climate change, then head to the comments on r/science about this blog post. There’s a lot of discussion about whether this is a genuine pro-science move, whether it’s a suppression of genuine criticism, and what kinds of tone are acceptable when posting contrary opinions.

For example, there’s a small debate over the politicisation of the word “denier”, and how some who are sceptical of climate models feel they are equated with “holocaust deniers” for daring to speak out. It’s stupid, obviously, but the point is it’s a civil debate compared to what you might see elsewhere when it comes to climate change.

The final question that Allen poses, though, is an interesting one - why don’t newspapers ban people like this too? The scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and is driven by humans, is extremely comprehensive and compelling - but media outlets like the BBC tend to offer "balance" by giving fringe sceptics an equal platform.

r/science has roughly four million monthly unique visitors, which makes it roughly twice as popular a website as the New Statesman, and an influential scientific resource. Perhaps some editors could look to reddit's science moderators for inspiration.

A screenshot of r/science, today.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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